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USM’s Tom Sadowski on his plans to help entrepreneurs grow on campus

‘It’s just a matter of letting (entrepreneurs) know you’re open to the conversation and ready and available to help them along the path because it’s a windy road from concept to commercialization,’ says Tom Sadowski, the University System of Maryland’s vice chancellor for economic development. ‘So we’re trying to help straighten that path out and make it a little more clearer.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

‘It’s just a matter of letting (entrepreneurs) know you’re open to the conversation and ready and available to help them along the path because it’s a windy road from concept to commercialization,’ says Tom Sadowski, the University System of Maryland’s vice chancellor for economic development. ‘So we’re trying to help straighten that path out and make it a little more clearer.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

J. Thomas Sadowski Jr., in his role as the University System of Maryland’s vice chancellor for economic development, is out to encourage entrepreneurs and bring products to market from the system’s 12 institutions.

Although the position, which he took on in May, involves a variety of assignments, Sadowski has taken a special interest in helping the universities nurture their entrepreneurs, whether they’re students or faculty, and help them to develop their intellectual property.

A major goal for Sadowski in helping the system’s entrepreneurs is trying to make the path to the commercialization of a product or company as straightforward as possible.

“But I think the mission overall is leveraging the brilliance that resides within the system for collective benefit,” Sadowski said told The Daily Record earlier this month in an interview.

Sadowski’s comments have been condensed and edited below for space and clarity.

How’s the new job? 

It’s great. I’m loving it. It’s the perfect place to say that ‘I’m learning so much.’ I’m enjoying learning about the work that they do and it’s a… you think you know something about an employer, a company, or a certain organization, then you really start to get in deep, and you start meeting the people, and you realize how much depth there is, just like meeting a person, right? You understand really what makes them tick.

You have all this work that’s been going on for a while now. The challenge is getting it to market, taking it beyond the “we’re doing all this research” and translating it to something more tangible, whether it’s an incubator or a company or something that engages in the community. Can you talk a little bit about what’s underway to develop that muscle?

(I’ve) talked about our focus on the student, so we’re in the human capital business. We’re also in the intellectual capital business, and development of intellectual property, being focused on the needs and advancement of our students. We’re also having to be mindful of the good work that our faculty is doing, and nurturing that work, and supporting them as best we can. But I think the mission overall is leveraging the brilliance that resides within the system for collective benefit.

And I think that for the longest time it’s been about, “What work can we do with the federal government?” We have all these different federal agencies and labs that are present here. But industry now, the innovation path has changed dramatically. And we’ve seen it over the last five years with the sequester and downturn in federal spending.

So what I’ve been most impressed with is how the system has been able to pivot and start to change the culture. I used to say our biggest challenge here in the Baltimore area, and Maryland, has been “culture and capital.” Changing the culture to think more in the way about “what’s the market relevance of the work that we’re doing?” And then let’s bring in the capital to help seed that activity and really invest in that activity.

Can you talk a bit about the particulars of that process? When you say you bring them in, are we talking about 15 people? What type of people? What are you showing them? What are you presenting to them? What kind of commitments, if anything, are you asking them for?

So those are people in this ecosystem we’ve been working so hard to develop over time. We’ve taken the trip to Austin, Texas, Silicon Valley, to Boston, to New York, and we’ve done a great job of tracking the progress and success of our serial entrepreneurs out there. Whether they be in cyber, bio-health or life sciences arena, or more broadly focused. So those were the people that we reached out to and said “you’ve been having a lot of success.”

‘It is industry, government and higher ed. That is the triangle now that makes it all go,’ says Tom Sadowski. ‘It’s gone from the need to control market share to collaborating in such a way to pursue market opportunity.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

‘It is industry, government and higher ed. That is the triangle now that makes it all go,’ says Tom Sadowski. ‘It’s gone from the need to control market share to collaborating in such a way to pursue market opportunity.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Are you bringing them here or are you going to them?

A lot of them are right there in the community. So we’re making a phone call, we’re bumping into them in the street, sending an email, ‘We’re having an event next week and we’d like to talk to you about it.’ You know, NEA, you know GrowTech, there’s some of our other friends out there, you know Ron Gula, with Tenable (Network Security), or Greg Cangialosi, you know folks like that. People that are really planted the flag here in the area, and really putting serious skin in the game. You know these serial entrepreneurs and seasoned venture capitalists, people that know the business, and have been in it for a while, and know success when they see it, or know a great idea when they see it, and can help it along.  So those are the kind of people that we’ve invited in.

I was wondering about the process of how you find out, or identify products or ideas that are being developed in the system that you feel are ripe to try to take it out and leverage this investment.

So that’s a site mining process. You have people who have done it before that can go and work with faculty, work with students, work with entrepreneurs, and they know a good idea when they see it. So they’ve done it before. So site miners, we call them, working at locations, working at the campuses to say “Hey, what’s going on?” And they’re able to maybe make those matches with some industry partners, or potential investors, and help mentor these entrepreneurs or these faculty members along the way. We’ve engaged entrepreneurs-in-residence. Again people that have this kind of expertise to help our faculty and student entrepreneurs along that commercialization path.

So that’s a pretty detailed process. You know, we’ve worked for years with (Johns) Hopkins in setting up that DreamIt accelerator and the success that we’ve had. It’s just a matter of letting those folks know you’re open to the conversation and ready and available to help them along the path because it’s a windy road from concept to commercialization. So we’re trying to help straighten that path out and make it a little more clearer.

Quite frankly, that’s the other thing we’ve been working hard on is creating what we’re calling a front door, just making it easier for our government and industry partners to partner with us to do more work. So we’re trying to grow that activity within the system.

Baltimore has long had an aspiration to become one of these centers that has a technology based economy. Do you see a role in USM in helping the city accomplish that?

Absolutely. And I would say it’s no longer an aspiration. I think we’re there. I really do. I think if you look at a lot of the rankings that are out there I think we’re the number two hotbed for startup activity. In the top five for the attraction of young professionals… I think we’re already there in a number of respects… I think the University System is so vital to that process, because look that’s where a lot of these ideas are coming from

And again, I’ve talked about how the innovation path has changed. No longer are our organizations just doing their own R&D, or investing in their own R&D. The nature of the whole federal mission has become one where they contract out to the private sector. Now they’re all coming to us because they know we have this intellectual capital, this asset that can be leveraged, and they know that we have some of the facilities that are required to help pursue and take that technology, you know that discovery process, even further.

And that’s what makes it so important for us to put ourselves out there, and make it easier for companies to come in and say “hey I’ve got this idea can you help us out?” Or for us to say, “Hey, I’ve got this faculty member developing a piece of technology or has a device we think could be novel and profitable. What do you think?”

It is industry, government and higher ed. That is the triangle now that makes it all go. Just because there may be a return to higher spending in like the world of defense, or energy… that doesn’t mean the innovation path is going to change. It’s gone from the need to control market share to collaborating in such a way to pursue market opportunity.


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